I’ve been photographing high school seniors for the past five years. It wasn’t my first choice in photography genres, it just sort of found me. During that time, I’ve learned to love high school senior portraits.

If you’re new to the genre, you need to remember a few simple rules and understand the two competing forces. Just as important, how to approach those two forces and end up on the winning side of both said forces.

Before we go any further, please understand what I’m describing today are guidelines, they are specifically not absolutes. Curious to learn more? Read on!

Force number one: Mom

Moms are the ones who are usually arranging the high school senior portrait sessions. For their sons, they will often make the clothing choices. Often much to the chagrin of their male offspring.

If you’ve never been a parent yourself, understand moms still have the vision of their sweet little boy or girl that they’ve cherished since child birth. Unless you’ve been a parent yourself, it can be difficult to grasp this concept.

The high school senior portrait — next to maybe a wedding — may be the crown jewel for Mom with regard to their precious child. In general, parents have a hard time coming to grips with the idea that their kids will soon be leaving the house for good. This may be the last event in their child’s lives they still have some control over. It’s important to be sensitive to that.

Remember that Mom’s want a wholesome photo of their daughter or son. We can get the “cool shot” but it’s important to get this photo out of the way.

Moms (usually) want a wholesome look from their son’s or daughter’s image

During the initial consultation with Mom, I’ll often ask her what she hopes to get out of the shoot for an outcome. The response is nearly universal. I want a nice image of my son/daughter for their graduation cards and to put in display our home.

What this means is, there is a photo that Mom has in mind for their son or daughter. A specific look that sums up how they see their child. What you’ll come to realize is the vision that mom has is drastically different from the vision the son or daughter has for themselves.

If you shoot weddings, think of the wholesome photo as being tantamount to family photos at a wedding. Not a portfolio image, but the kind of image that nearly ALWAYS gets the sale.

Which leads us to force number two …

Force number two: The son or daughter

Heading into a senior portrait, try to remember these two golden rules about these young men and women:

  1. Girls want to look and feel beautiful
  2. Boys just want to look cool and not be embarrassed by their picture in front of their friends

Girls

When photographing a high school senior girl, I highly, highly recommended professional hair and makeup. You may even want to consider adding this service into your cost and work out a deal with a local hair and makeup professional to be there for pre-shoot makeup and touch-ups during the shoot. You want this to be a spa like experience for them.

The other option is to strongly recommend hair and makeup to Mom and let her arrange this service beforehand. High school girls are generally very good about their clothing selections. Most of the young women who come into the studio are ready to be photographed in their favorite outfits.

High school senior girls just want to look and feel beautiful
Sometimes high school senior girls want to look cool, too!

Boys

When photographing a high school senior boy, I’ll often tell the Mom to select her favorite outfits for them, but I will always encourage Mom to let their son select some of their favorite clothes/outfits as well.

This is extremely important, because it lets the son know that you have their interest at heart in the shoot and aren’t just following the sole direction of Mom.

Language to use to gain the senior’s trust

Once we step away from Mom and begin taking photos, I’ll have a conversation that goes something like this:

Me: “So this first part is for Mom. Understand your mom wants a specific, wholesome photo out of this and we’re going to get that out of the way first. After that, we’re going to do what you want to do.”

The Senior: Almost instantly sighing in relief and smiling big — as if to say “Thank god!” — from that point onward, I am on their side and gain their trust immediately. It breaks the ice and takes a huge weight off their shoulders. From that moment, the senior is at ease and we’re able to capture their true essence, and some killer photos. It gets even better when we switch to their choice in outfit and environment.

For the “Photo for Mom” section of the shoot, I’m tethered to a large TV screen in the studio while Mom watches the images appear on the screen. When we know we’ve captured the “Mom shot” — then I know it’s safe to move on to the “Son and daughter” side of the shoot. The knowing nod is shared between photographer and subject that the time has come to capture the shot they’ll want all their friends to see.

This is an image I would deem a “Mom Shot”
This is an image a high school boy wants to show off to his friends — boy’s looking “cool” here!

Knowing these simple rules will help you win both sides of the senior portrait and will also allow you capture some killer images. Mom will tell all her friends how great you are — but the son or daughter will tag you all over social media. If you did your job, it’s likely you’ll get bombarded with high school senior requests.